Archiving Memories in Pandemic Times: Documenting Jewish Exile in Shanghai

In spring 2019, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) hosted an event series titled “Afterimage” to showcase renowned German director Ulrike Ottinger’s critically acclaimed documentaries, while inviting her to discuss her research methods and approach to visual design when making nonfictional films in a Mosse Lecture event and a podcast. From November 2020 to July 18, 2021, BAMPFA again celebrates Ottinger’s transnational oeuvre through the film streaming series “East Meets West,” in a time when encounters with the foreign are precisely hampered by travel restrictions and nationalist sentiments in light of the pandemic.

Ottinger’s fascination for East Asian culture and history is explored in a diverse array of films including Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (Joan of Arc of Mongolia, 1989), Taiga – Eine Reise ins nördliche Land der Mongolen (Taiga – A Journey to the Northern Land of the Mongols, 1992), Seoul Women Happiness (2008), Die koreanische Hochzeitstruhe (The Korean Wedding Chest, 2009), the Japanese-themed documentary Unter Schnee (Under Snow, 2011), China. Die Künste – der Alltag. Eine filmische Reisebeschreibung (China: The Arts—The People, 1985), and most notably, Exil Shanghai (Exile Shanghai, 1997), which portrays the life of Jewish immigrants who came to China for trade after 1840 or for refuge from pogroms in Eastern Europe, the Russian Revolution, and the Holocaust during the first half of the twentieth century.

Echoing this spirit of investigating German-East Asian entanglements, Shanghai’s municipal government has recently engaged in efforts to document the life of Jewish refugees in the city during World War II by greatly expanding the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, which was first built in 2007 at the site of the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue and reopened in December 2020 after a three-year renovation since 2017. The Shanghai Media Group TV News Center also produced a three-part documentary with a total running time of ninety minutes in 2015, titled Survival in Shanghai, about this unique chapter in the history of the Holocaust. A Chinese version of the film (《生命的记忆——犹太人在上海》) was also released and aired on television in the same year.

The Chinese government’s recent fascination with this minority group obscures its past negligence in the preservation of Jewish history in Shanghai. When I first visited the Bibliotheca Zi-Ka-Wei in January 2018 to research the interactions between the Chinese and the Jewish refugees during World War II, the archive was in a dire situation: the catalog of Jewish newspapers in Shanghai was hand-written on discolored papers; the cover wrapping the documents crumbled with every turn of the page; some cataloged newspapers can no longer be found and retrieved, and I was usually the only person present in the reading room. This was hardly surprising. As Achille Mbembe argues in “The Power of the Archive and Its Limits,” the archive is the result of the exercise of a specific power and authority, through which certain documents are granted a privileged status of “archivable” while others are judged irrelevant and unworthy of preservation (20). Since the Jewish refugees were a minority group largely confined to a poor urban enclave (the Hongkou District, formerly spelled as Hongkew), memories of their lives are relegated to the margins of Chinese history.

Indeed, the government’s revived interest in this group is not devoid of political underpinnings. A report in Xinmin Nightly News (新民晚报) indicates that the costly reconstructions were part of a larger mission: as the northern part of the Bund in Shanghai undergoes new development and attracts more foreign visitors in the future, the museum and the documentary played in the exhibition rooms will bear the tasks of recounting the story of transethnic friendship and highlighting the interconnected nature of human destinies.

Made with different objectives, Ottinger’s approach to documenting Jewish history in Exil Shanghai differs significantly from the Chinese approach. According to Prakash Shambhavi, Ottinger’s film presents a palimpsestic model of memory by mapping scenes of contemporary Shanghai onto the survivors’ reminiscences of their life in the 1930s and 1940s, thereby rejecting a single, authoritative account of the past while opening up possibilities for cross-cultural exchange (72-6). At the same time, however, the Chinese citizens of Shanghai become a background image against which variegated scenes from Jewish life could be painted. In a brief scene from a four-and-half-hour film, only one Chinese interviewee recounts the presence of the émigrés in Hongkou, but the camera refrains from lingering on her face, instead slowly panning away to show details of the house’s interior while her voice fades into illegibility. Although the film’s politics of superimposing refugees’ past memories and modern Shanghai does not deny the possibility of affective alignment between the Jews and the Chinese, it does not actively foster an interaction between these two groups and their accounts of history either.

By contrast, Chinese documentary directed by Yan Xiaoying intersperses accounts of Jewish life in Shanghai with memories of a concurrent atrocity, namely the Japanese invasion of China and the subsequent subjugation of ordinary citizens under colonial rule. The interviewees in Survival in Shanghai invariably mention the horrible conditions under which the poor Chinese had to live and their mistreatment by the Japanese soldiers. These reminiscences of wartime Shanghai are also supplemented by both archival footage of the Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese residents’ accounts of their interactions with Jews in Hongkou.

The Jewish survivors also recount detailed incidences of how they interacted with their Chinese neighbors. For instance, Vera Sassoon (薇拉 in the Chinese version) remembers a friendly neighbor, Zhou Zhiji (周志基), who always invited her to have meals at his family and who sometimes hired rickshaw pullers to take her back home after school. The documentary also features Sassoon having a video conversation with his daughter Zhou Huizhen (周惠珍), who played with Vera when they were children. Here, the refugees’ more extensive stories of interactions with the Chinese as compared to those in Ottinger’s film could be partially attributed to the filmmakers’ deliberate choice of whom to interview. Made almost twenty years after Exil Shanghai, the Chinese documentary approaches the younger generation of refugees who either came to China as little children or who were born there as “Shanghai babies,” and thus potentially had more chance to mingle with their Chinese neighbors than the older generation of émigrés in Ottinger’s film. On the other hand, this sudden new interest in public memory making is motivated by the Chinese’s conscious act of self-positioning.

At first glance, the juxtaposition of the violence against and exclusion of the Jewish refugees with the equally tragic sufferings that the Chinese had to endure under colonization in Survival in Shanghai seems to be a more inclusive account of Jewish exile in Shanghai. However, this approach falls short of the complex model of multidirectional memory proposed by Michael Rothberg. Rothberg argues that “multidirectionality encourages us to think of the public sphere as a malleable discursive space in which groups do not simply articulate established positions but actually come into being through their dialogical interactions with others” (5). In other words, collective memory must be “partially disengaged from exclusive versions of cultural identity” (11). Survival in Shanghai seeks to paint a picture of Jewish-Chinese interaction, but it neither fully interrogates the deeper consequences of this interaction on the refugees and the native Shanghainese nor portrays how incidents of brutality and segregation changed their previous conceptions or challenged their complete lack of knowledge of European anti-Semitism and Japanese colonialism, respectively.

For instance, in one of the opening scenes of the Chinese documentary, the filmmakers follow Betty Grebenschikoff (贝蒂), author of the memoir Once My Name Was Sara (1993), through the San Francisco Chinatown, as she dines at a Chinese restaurant and buys soy sauce at an Asian grocery. Later in her home, Betty showcases a jacket made in the style of the Qing Dynasty. The narration attributes Betty’s hobbies to her upbringing in Shanghai, declaring that “almost seventy years after she left Shanghai, traces of China still permeate Betty’s life” (离开上海已近七十年,中国的印痕依然渗透在贝蒂的生活里). At the same time that these scenes might suggest Betty’s special affinity to Chinese culture—with a tinge of orientalism—which she might not have developed had she not lived in Shanghai for over a decade, it also trivializes Jewish-Chinese encounters as nothing beyond ethnic cuisine and exotic clothing. The Chinese filming team seems to be searching hard for imprints of Shanghai in the contemporary life of the Jewish émigrés in order to validate their claim of Shanghai’s lasting impact in providing refuge for the persecuted, whereas a deep and continuous engagement with Chinese culture by the émigrés does not really exist. As Birgit Maier-Katkin mentions in her article on this film, the interviewees observed the horrid malnutrition and brutal treatment that the Chinese experienced from a distance; although the film attempts to put exemplary moments of collaboration under the spotlight, it does not fully deconstruct the deeply engrained Chinese-Western binary mindset.

In this sense, neither Ottinger’s palimpsestic model nor the Chinese documentary’s more interactive approach fully explores the complexity of the exchanges that happened between the Jews and the Chinese in Shanghai. Instead, a more desirable path might lie in the middle: rather than mapping Jewish memories of the past onto contemporary Shanghai at the expense of competing local remembrances of encounter, and rather than creating an exaggerated narrative of impassioned interactions, new narratives of this history could explore how the city of Shanghai functions both as an actor that bridges together diverse perspectives and as a meeting ground where no singular view of the past emerges as representative. Indeed, it is precisely the spirit of multidimensional and transnational ways of remembering that must be celebrated in the age of the pandemic.

Works Cited:

Maier-Katkin, Birgit. “Documentaries about Jewish Exiles in Shanghai: Witness Testimony and Cross-Cultural Public Memory Formation.” Forthcoming in East Asian-German Cinema: The Transnational Screen, 1919 to the Present, edited by Joanne Miyang Cho. New York: Routledge, 2022.

Mbembe, Achille. “The Power of the Archive and Its Limits.” Refiguring the Archive, edited by Carolyn Hamilton, Verne Harris, Jane Taylor, Michele Pickover, Graeme Reid, and Razia Saleh, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002, pp. 19-26.

Rothberg, Michael. Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. Stanford UP, 2009.

Shambhavi, Prakash. “Representations of Jewish Exile and Models of Memory in Shanghai Ghetto and Exil Shanghai.” Transnational encounters between Germany and East Asia since 1900, edited by Joanne Miyang Cho, Routledge, 2018, pp. 62-81.

About Qingyang Freya Zhou

Qingyang Freya Zhou is a PhD candidate in German Studies, with a Designated Emphasis in Film Studies, at UC Berkeley. Her research focuses on the intersections between socialist internationalism and postcolonial studies, particularly the literary and cinematic interactions between Germany and East Asia during the Cold War and beyond.
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